If you have children you will know that getting them to eat what the rest of the family eats is not always easy. However, there are kids who are fussy with food and then ASD kids who can be more than fussy with food. The difference is like the difference between your average person on a diet and the daily life of an anorexic.
The usual advice for the parents of children who refuse to eat what is on there plate is to let them go hungry and when they are hungry enough they will eat the food. Well, this sometimes works with ASD children but more than likely it won’t. Some ASD children will starve rather than eat a food which they find abhorrent. In fact, sometimes the only way to feed some ASD children is through a tube that is surgically placed directly into their stomach to bypass their mouths.
Imagine if someone sat you down at a table and insisted that you eat a plate of doo poo mixed with an assortment of insects and cod liver oil. Would you eat that when you got hungry enough?
I suspect not.
This is how it can be for ASD children who are faced with foods that they will not eat. There can be sensory issues behind this aversion (tactile, acute smell, taste etc.,). There can also be rules-based obsessive thought patterns behind the behaviour. There could be physiological reasons. There can be other ASD particular reasons which we neurotypicals may never decipher.
Whatever the reasons, it can drive parents of ASD children completely nutty with exasperation. I’m guessing macaroni cheese and pink milk isn’t the best selection from the five food groups for good nutrition.
My son, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, spent many years eating vegemite or peanut butter on white bread sandwiches at every meal and occasionally ham or tinned tuna, dried apricots and salty plain potato chips (only the ones with ridges on them; he wouldn’t eat the flat ones).
When we switched to gluten free white bread, nothing changed except he would have Mighty-Mite (a vegemite equivalent) or peanut butter on gluten free bread.
He refused most meat and all vegetables (except potato) and most fruit (except oranges and dried apricots). In later years he started to eat steak and bacon, but stopped eating ham and tuna. He later refused all fruits. He also stopped eating sandwiches altogether (toast was fine), but developed a taste for ‘junk food’ like pepperoni pizza (no other types allowed), hot dogs, bacon and egg burgers, hot chips. He smothers most foods in tomato sauce (only one particular brand is acceptable).
Then he also developed a taste for garlic bread and some curries. We went to a restaurant once and he ordered the duck and absolutely loved it.
Confusing isn’t it!
The presentation of the food was also a key issue. The use of the same bowls and cutlery was important in the earlier years. I was required to cut the bread symmetrically (a perfect centre cut). Placement of hated food items (eg. a pea) on his plate was a huge mistake. Putting different foods very close together on a plate was not a good idea (that’s probably why sandwiches never work and have to be dismantled by him into component parts before any part is eaten).
Hiding ‘prohibited’ foods is not a good idea for my son (hiding vegetables in the stew doesn’t work when your kid has an exceptional sense of smell and can identify onion from 100 metres away). Failure to adhere to the ‘rules’ of food would often lead to hysterics and running away from the table (sometimes he would run around the house several times until he had calmed down).
Over the years I’ve learnt not to force my son to eat what he refuses to eat. I won’t place unwanted food items on his plate in case he miraculously changes his mind.
I’ve occasionally negotiated with him to taste a new food (on the condition that he can spit it out if he chooses) for a reward. This has generally not achieved anything except annoying both child and mother.
I have discussed food and nutrition with him and tried to get him self-motivated to try some healthy options. He now understands that a diet of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (and low in vitamins, minerals and fibre) can have negative health effects in the long run (e.g. diabetes) but he still won’t eat fruit and vegetables. He says that he is considering eating them in the future and he really wants to be healthy but it is very difficult for him. I believe him.
As with most things in the ASD world, nothing happens easily or overnight. His diet is gradually getting more varied and he is motivated to keep trying.
If you are a parent or caregiver of a fussy eater on the autism spectrum, please remember:
Don’t feel guilty
Tomato sauce is packed full of vitamin C ;)
and there is always hope.
A good book on the subject:
Brenda Legge (2001). Can’t eat, Won’t eat: Dietary Difficulties and Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadephia.